Saturday, January 10, 2009

mindfulness and the crafted object

We have become cogs in a machine whirring beyond our consciousness and control, but, what if we wanted to live our lives more fully conscious and awakened to mystery and wonder at the interconnections we have with each other? What would be the nature of the objects that framed that experience? When we picked up a cup to drink, would it be one made through caring investment of human attention, or thoughtlessly and mindlessly cranked out by a machine in a foreign land and delivered through a complex and environmentally destructive mechanism to the local Target Store?

Is consciousness something that just happens to us haphazard and regardless, or are there choices we make that affect the depth and quality of our experience?

In the US, this rule seems to apply to crafts: the less useful the object, the greater its value... as though crafts, like art are to be placed on shelves and on walls and seen but not felt. And yet it is through the touch and use of an object that its full depth becomes known. The deep feelings and sensitivities of the craft maker are kept safely at arms length.

My readers in the US might be interested in visiting the Wharton Esherick Museum where you can find what life was like when all the objects in one's life were made by someone known and those objects were selected for the care and love they express.

If we were interested in a more mindful and qualitative existence that engaged our neighbors and friends in greater creativity and the growth of their human potentials, our choices would be very different from what we've made now.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

One hand clapping?

How do we stop duping ourselves? The Zen story of one hand clapping is an example. The teacher asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" And the student runs all over trying to figure it out. "Is it like a bell?" he asks. "Is it like a bird in flight?" he asks. And yet a hand passed through the air in direct demonstration would have provided an immediate answer to his quest. We have created schools in which children are pushed immediately into abstraction, causing them to believe that so much is beyond their capacity to understand, and that so many are more intelligent or more capable, rather than just more deeply engaged. Once we have accomplished that tragic circumstance, those children are doomed to sit disengaged, bored and feeling incompetent throughout their school careers. Throw in a few days absent and a few more tardy, and learning becomes even more abstract. But put the hands in place and things change.

When the Mosely Education Commission report found in 1903 that American School success was the result of the practicality of our education, and our avoidance of the testing tyranny dominating UK schooling, we were given valuable information which we have proceeded to ignore, for over 100 years! We dismantled the system that brought our educational success.

So we have students who would not wonder about one hand clapping. They have no enthusiasm for the quest. And the shame of it is that most Americans don't either.

But we can put hands (all of them) back in schools. Today the 5th and 6th grade students will finish their book racks and begin using the wood shop in their study of anatomy. How will they do that? Stay tuned to the Wisdom of the Hands blogand you will see.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Where does the mind go when the hand is at work?

Things move in patterns and waves. As you stand on the beach each wave will seem just like another. And yet each is distinct. It brings in new things. There is a renewal of interest in self-sufficiency and do it yourself that seems to be arising in many age groups. We notice it in our home, with our daughter Lucy taking a strong interest in cooking. Last night while I made bread, Lucy and Jean made a corn casserole, a dinner we shared with my aging mother.

In a way, the renewed wave of self-sufficiency is misnamed. It is about doing things ourselves, most often with others in mind. There at the heart of self-sufficiency, is the idea that something can be shared or offered in service to others. Scrapwood Bob is reading Build Your Own Earth Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread; Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field. He plans to use scrap wood from the woodshop as his source of fuel. What fun! Reduce the growing pile of scrap and make bread at the same time. I hope to see photos.

There are two things that happen when we are creatively engaged in the making of things, making a meal, building an oven, or finely crafting an object from wood. On the one hand we shape the material present in our own lives to new form and we change the shape our own souls. We serve others through the things we make and we stretch ourselves in confidence and competency, moving from complacency to active participants in creation.

Early educators warned that we take on a mechanical nature through the repetition of acts. We do something and develop skill in the doing and then as the skill takes root in the hand, its function becomes automatic, no longer requiring the attention of the mind and thereby losing its educational value in shaping character and thought. I am curious about this. And ask, "What happens when we are fully aware of the implications of our actions?" What would happen if our schools became not just places where our children were to learn, but places in which they might serve as well, seeing the actions of their hands providing benefit to others?

I have this idea that when use use both the power of the trained hand to create, and the power of the mind to connect active hands-on service to higher thoughts and principles, the object made might become more powerful in its beauty, transmitting an energy that provides greater nourishment than would be found in objects thoughtlessly made or grown.

For this to happen requires training of both the hand and mind. As we learn skill in the hands and the attention of the mind is no longer required for the success of its actions, what do we do with the mind? As it becomes free to wander, where does it go? What do we choose for it's pasture? We can choose greater creativity, asking the question "what's next?" Or we can contemplate greater direction and more meaningful life. We can fantasize our own success. Or we can choose to indulge in fears and suspicions of each other. There is clearly a choice between dark indulgences and longing for better things, either for ourselves or others.

And yet, there is a third choice, the Zen choice. What if one were to choose to be fully present. Rather than allowing the mind to wander from the moment as though no moment mattered, what if we chose to pay greater attention to each grasp of the hand in kneading the dough, or each pass of the plane shaving an edge of a plank as though such things were so real and so important there is no reason for escape? There is an idea in Zen that it is about freedom, but perhaps freedom is not about escape.

So, these are just questions, about where we are led by our quest for self-sufficiency, about the baking of bread and the nurturing of human culture.